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Published October 06 2013

‘A lot of good stories to tell’: Retired DEA agent from Moorhead turns experiences into fiction novel

MOORHEAD – Moorhead native Don Nelson has felt bullets whiz past his head.

He’s moved his family to another city because someone he put in prison reportedly wanted him dead.

On many mornings, he went to work not knowing if he’d be coming home later that night or in a couple of days – or at all.

“I’ve been shot at and accosted and threatened. That’s what happens if you do your job in the DEA,” he said.

Nelson, who now lives in River Falls, Wis., has channeled his 21 years as a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration into a work of fiction based on real-life experiences. The novel, “Epidemic of Choice: A DEA Story,” was released in October 2012.

“I thought I had a lot of good stories to tell,” he said.

Set in the early 1980s, the story centers on veteran DEA Special Agent Jake Shaunessey after his transfer from San Diego to Minneapolis. The death toll rises as Shaunessey investigates a heroin trafficking ring that extends into northern Minnesota and North Dakota, including a farm in rural Kindred, N.D., where a cultish clan of drug dealers takes orders from a manipulative ex-con.

High-level investigations

Nelson, a 1962 graduate of Moorhead High School and Marine Corps veteran, began his own DEA career in 1973, the year President Richard Nixon issued an executive order establishing the unified agency to engage in “an all-out global war on the drug menace.”

During his first DEA assignment as a narcotics agent in Minneapolis, Nelson developed a case on a Colombian drug cartel. The investigation eventually led to a gunfight with a suspected drug trafficker who was inside a building in St. Paul. Nelson tried unsuccessfully to kick down the steel-reinforced door, then looked through a window and saw the suspect raise a gun at him and his boss.

“The bullet went through the glass and whizzed right by our heads, and he got a chunk of glass in his eyeball,” Nelson said, adding the glass shard was entered into evidence after being removed from his boss’s eye.

Nelson said he had a knack for getting involved in investigations of high-level criminals.

In Omaha, Neb., his work helped to decimate an entire chapter of an outlaw motorcycle gang. He investigated links to the Mafia and Cuban organized crime in a case indicted in Des Moines, Iowa. Nelson later learned that one of those imprisoned had put out a contract on his life, and the DEA moved Nelson, his wife and their two kids to Detroit.

“It was very disrupting to my family,” he said.

‘Kindred lights’

One storyline in the book is drawn from a mystery involving “the Kindred lights,” a strange phenomenon during the 1970s that began on the outskirts of Kindred and which Nelson said he heard about through unofficial sources. In the book’s prologue, Nelson states as fact that farmers and other citizens reported seeing people carrying lit torches in strange processions at night, moving about the farmlands, and that authorities responded with aggressive investigations.

“As far as I know, the problem just suddenly dissipated, and they never did resolve it,” he said.

Former Cass County Sheriff Don Rudnick said he remembers hearing about the Kindred lights and people driving around looking for them. But he said he never saw them and doesn’t recall the sheriff’s office investigating them.

For the purposes of his fictional novel, Nelson ties the Kindred lights to cattle mutilations and attributes them to the drug-dealing clan’s satanic rituals.


Nelson, 69, said the timing of the book’s release coinciding with the resurgence in heroin abuse and overdoses in the Midwest is just a coincidence. He started writing the novel in 1998-99 and finished it about three years later, then spent the following years looking for a publisher before releasing the book a year ago through Amazon for Kindle. It was published in paperback in April.

Nelson said he believes the area’s heroin problem is “in epidemic stages right now.”

“I’m thinking that we lost the war,” he said. “And I’m thinking that until we can stop the huge demand for drugs in this country, there’s no way we’re going to prevent people from slipping drugs into this country when there’s huge amounts of money involved.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528